The History of the US Two-Party System
The Founding Fathers erroneously believed that the Constitution they created would prevent the formation of political parties. Most carried to the Philadelphia Convention a belief, based in the history of the Roman Republic, that political parties would destroy a free society.
In the Roman Republic, political parties formed around the issue of the Roman constitution. One party saw this constitution as a bulwark of rule of law essential for protecting citizen rights. The opposing party saw the constitution as an obstacle to their schemes. Only a few decades after the party system emerged, the Roman Republic descended first into civil war, then evolved into an authoritarian empire.
Even as each US state debated adoption of the new fundamental law of the land, political parties emerged—despite the Founders’ best efforts.
Federalists and Anti-Federalists
The first parties looked more like assemblages of activists than the organized institutions that later emerged. Federalists backed adoption of the Constitution, while Anti-Federalists opposed it.
Despite facing considerable skepticism in some states, the Federalists won the argument. They had a single goal, and that was adoption of the Constitution. When possible, they compromised on some issues, such as the later inclusion of a comprehensive Bill of Rights to ensure the protection of white, landowning men's rights and freedoms.
Supporters of the constitution also enjoyed a unifying doctrine created by some of the world’s greatest legal and political minds, including James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. The Federalist Papers remain one of the best explanations of a law and its expected impact on a republic ever written.
Federalists and Democratic-Republicans
Once adopted, many Federalists translated their support for the Constitution into backing President George Washington and his policies. President Washington held his own vision of building America into a commercial power, one that he hoped would be secure from the revolutions and wars shaking Europe at the time. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s ideas on building banking and manufacturing in America dovetailed well with President Washington’s.
Washington and Hamilton’s combined ideal for a prosperous and secure United States required national authority and policy planning, including a central financial institution called the Bank of the United States. They also envisioned a national network of roads and canals to promote trade. Many Federalists also called for a protective tariff to shield US manufacturers and other businesses from British competition.
States’ rights advocates, such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, feared that expanding federal authority would undermine that enjoyed by state governments. Jefferson, Madison, and others saw Washington and Hamilton’s plans as a prelude to ever-expanding federal powers. To men like Jefferson and Madison—and the party they formed, the Democratic-Republicans—state governments served as the most effective guardians of individual rights and freedoms.
The Democratic-Republicans, who went by the shorter term “Republicans” because of the radical connotation of the word democratic, also regarded the violent revolution in France as a positive step in political developments. Federalists tended to side with Britain and its history of gradually expanding freedoms and social stability.
Federalists elected only two presidents, George Washington and John Adams.
In 1800, voters rejected the Federalists. Much of their animus originated in the unpopular, Federalist-backed Sedition Act, which made many forms of government criticism a crime. Democratic-Republican legislatures in Kentucky and Virginia passed resolutions claiming the right for state courts to overturn Congressional acts they deemed unconstitutional.
Thomas Jefferson led his party into political dominance that lasted for over a generation. The last vestige of the Federalists dissolved when party opponents of the War of 1812 proposed secession for New England states adversely affected by the conflict with Britain.
The Era of Good Feelings
After the Democratic-Republican President James Madison successively defeated both the British Empire and the Barbary pirate states, the nation entered a brief period of political party peace known as the “Era of Good Feelings.” For almost three presidential terms, including James Madison’s second term and James Monroe’s entire presidency, the United States had a one-party administration. James Monroe won a nearly unanimous Electoral College victory when contending for reelection.
At the tail end of this short period, the issue of slavery erupted into the national consciousness. This provided yet another issue for partisan political party development in the future.
National Republicans and Democratic Republicans
As Monroe’s presidency came to a close, the economic development arguments resurfaced. Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams led a faction of the Democratic-Republicans who preferred to follow the economic vision of Hamilton and Washington. The “American System,” as National Republicans described, proposed federally-funded canals and roads, as well as protective tariffs for industry. Southern states—rightly, as it turned out—feared that tariff reprisals would take place against their agricultural exports to Britain.
John Quincy Adams’s election in 1820, as well as his political partnership with Secretary of State Henry Clay, also coincided with the eruption over the allowance of slavery in the new state of Missouri. The resulting compromise put off, rather than solved, the slavery issue, which would increasingly dominate partisan debates going forward.
Democrats and Whigs
The John Quincy Adams administration’s moves coincided with the Democratic-Republican Party undergoing a major transition. Andrew Jackson, leader of militia forces who defeated a major British invasion at New Orleans during the War of 1812, infused populism into his party’s approach. State after state passed laws permitting universal white male suffrage, expanding the vote well beyond formerly imposed property ownership qualifications.
These laws permitted the landless and the poor to vote, often for the first time, in the election of 1828 that brought Jackson into the presidency. A party formerly identified with deference toward Virginia aristocrats now exploded with popular enthusiasm and concern for the issues affecting the white rural poor.
National Republicans sensed that the rift had grown into a chasm and, by the mid-1830s, had formed their own party. The Whigs took their name from the British party of the same name that supported gradual reductions in the prerogatives of royals and aristocrats and expansion in the rights of the people.
The Whigs intended to focus directly on economic issues. Their most valuable accomplishments lay in helping to craft compromises to keep the US intact. Unwillingness to address slavery directly, however, left them incapable of credibility on national issues by the 1850s.
Whiggism’s last bastion of power lay in Virginia, where they opposed policies that would worsen national tensions. The Constitutional Union Party in 1860, which simply backed peace and loyalty to the Union, was in effect the Whigs’ final political effort.
The 1840s and 1850s also featured the rise of a number of parties outside of the two major parties. These included anti-Freemason, anti-immigration, and other parties.
Democrats and Republicans
By the mid-1850s, many found the Whig Party incapable of working to solve the slavery issue that by now consumed American politics. Many who favored the “American System” economic vision also stoutly opposed slavery. The market economy developing in the Northern states was seen as a threat to Southern economic interests as well.
The Republican Party that emerged in the mid-1850s took inspiration from Thomas Jefferson’s expressions against slavery. Some fought harder for economic development; others made abolition their priority. Either way, their policies and principles put them in almost complete opposition to those of much of the Democratic Party.
In 1860, the Democratic Party served as the last major national institution that had not split apart. Its break over supporting a Northern versus a Southern candidate, as well as debates over whether slavery served as a common good or a necessary evil, forced a break into geographical branches.
This enabled Republican presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln to score an Electoral College victory, leading to both the Civil War and abolition.
Since the Civil War, Republicans and Democrats have served as the two major parties in the American system. Over time, issues and changing demographics have transformed the parties and people’s perspectives of them repeatedly. Both parties, whether it was intended or not, tend to follow both their base and independent voters who lean toward their cause for inspiration on ideals and issues.
The American two-party system has proved more resilient than consistent, but it has also served as a somewhat stabilizing influence on the nation, at least thus far.